The Common Good
November 2004

The Politics Of Piety

by Amy Sullivan | November 2004

When candidates claim God as their campaign manager, you can be sure they're trying to divert attention from the real question: Do they walk the talk?

The most unsettling moment of the Republican National Convention for me came not during Zell Miller'

The most unsettling moment of the Republican National Convention for me came not during Zell Miller’s keynote address or Dick Cheney’s appearance or even George W. Bush’s acceptance speech, but when the other "W." - Michael W. Smith - took the stage to address the crowd.

Sitting in Madison Square Garden in the midst of thousands of cheering Republican delegates - a disturbing number of whom had chosen to accessorize with giant elephants on their heads - I felt distinctly like a member of the away team, sitting on my hands while those around me whooped at attacks on "Paris" or "The New York Times" or "Massachusetts." When I heard the arena announcer introduce Michael W. Smith, I thought I could at least blend in for a few minutes. After all, I spent much of high school listening to the contemporary Christian singer’s music, attending his concerts, and playing his songs at church; as recently as just a few months ago, my neighbors gathered around my piano as we channeled our teenage selves and belted out a rendition of "Friends."

But Smith wasn’t there simply to entertain the crowd. Throughout four days of what one friend described as an "extended mega-church service" - complete with praise songs, worship leaders, testimonials, and even a pulpit adorned with the outline of a cross - a steady stream of Christian performers had appeared, each one prompting queries of "who the heck is that?" from the hard-bitten journalists around me. Before "Smitty" lent his raspy voice and keyboard skills to the proceedings, however, he testified to the spiritual side of his friend, the president. The two of them had spoken in the Oval Office just a few months after Sept. 11, 2001, he told us. And during that conversation, he got a glimpse of the president’s true heart when Bush turned to him and said, "Someone should write a song about this." That was all the inspiration Smith needed to write "There She Stands," the ballad he performed during the last evening of the convention.

This assertion of Bush’s piety is not exactly substantive. Several hagiographic portrayals of Bush - including the books A Man of Faith: The Spiritual Journey of George W. Bush and The Faith of George W. Bush (as well as a documentary of the same name)—rely on similarly weak examples, citing Bush’s exercise regimen and habit of eating carrots, for instance, as proof of his spiritual commitment to maintaining his body as a temple for God. But what is most troubling is that these testimonials reinforce the idea that voters should choose a candidate primarily based on personal religiosity.

IRONICALLY, A DEMOCRAT is responsible for this trend in modern American politics. When Jimmy Carter launched his campaign for the White House in 1976, Americans were disgusted by the corruption of the Nixon administration and hungry for moral leadership. The Baptist Sunday school teacher from Georgia had the right character at the right time and played up his piety as part of a larger effort to reassure the country. Republican politicians eagerly adopted Carter’s approach; during a campaign stop in 1980, Ronald Reagan (not himself a church-going man) promised the 15,000-member evangelical Roundtable group that he would govern according to "old-time religion."

For more than two decades now, however, Democrats have either remained silent on the topic of religion or have fallen into the same trap, pointing to their religiosity in an often last-ditch effort to convince voters that they have character, too (think Al Gore’s avowal that he asks himself "What would Jesus do?" or Howard Dean’s conversion on the road to Des Moines last winter). And so we are left with a political process in which candidates get away with campaigning on their own personal religiosity without ever being pressed to explain why it is relevant to their qualifications for office.

Certainly, voters want to know that their leaders have some sort of moral grounding - in at least one survey, more than 70 percent of Americans told pollsters that they want their president to be a "man of faith." And they have good reasons for this. A president must make momentous, life-and-death decisions while in office, and people want that individual to have something bucking him up other than his pollster - something he or she can turn to for guidance and strength. It reassures us to know that our leaders feel the pull of a greater interest. But knowing how often a politician prays or reads the Bible or goes to church isn’t necessarily a good indicator of what kind of person he is (although by the last measure, it has become clear over the past year that John Kerry attends church much more regularly than George W. Bush). The Bible is replete with warnings to beware of those who wear their religion on their sleeve: "And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men," says Jesus (Matthew 6:5).

Instead, voters need to know whether a politician’s actions match the religious values they profess - whether, in other words, they walk the walk in addition to talking the talk. And it is on this point that the two presidential campaigns have provided distinct models this year.

ALTHOUGH BUSH has, over the course of his time in the White House, proven himself adept at evocative, under-the-radar uses of religious language and imagery, his second presidential campaign has been anything but subtle. During a fall campaign stop in Michigan, Bush was introduced by a young man who led the crowd in prayer, declaring that they were "gathered to lift high the name of Jesus Christ" and praising God for the election of Bush. ("We know you appointed him to the position.") Some of Bush’s supporters have argued that he is superior to Kerry precisely because of his born-again experience. In attacks that carry undertones of anti-Catholicism, both Zell Miller and conservative adviser Marvin Olasky have claimed that Kerry lacks the "spiritual support" Bush has because, as a Catholic, he has never rededicated his life to God.

And while not approaching the chutzpah of Pat Robertson - who told viewers in January that he was "hearing from the Lord" that "George Bush is going to win in a walk" - many Republicans have sought to confer divine favor on the president. Speaker after speaker at the Republican Convention "thanked God" for the fact that Bush was president. "He is one of those men God and fate somehow lead to the fore in times of challenge," said New York Gov. George Pataki, while his colleague Rudy Giuliani related how on the emotional day of Sept. 11, he grabbed the arm of then-NYC Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik and said simply, "Thank God George Bush is our president."

The implication of all of this, of course, is that Bush has the endorsement of God and is, by extension, infallible. While once conservatives argued that opposition to Bush’s policies was tantamount to treason, under this logic opposition to the president becomes heresy. If you’re not with us, you’re not just against us, you’re against God.

AGAINST THIS political background, Kerry and the Democrats had three choices: Remain silent and let Republicans monopolize religious rhetoric, play the same game and emphasize Kerry’s religious background, or try a different approach. To their credit, the Democrats realized that although they may prefer to keep religion out of politics altogether, the strategy of ignoring religion fails to work if it is a major piece of your opponent’s campaign. They got an unexpected boost from the springtime controversy over whether Kerry could take communion - while it raised questions in some quarters about whether Kerry was a "good" Catholic, weekly coverage of the Wafer Watch showed voters that Kerry attends church frequently. His religiosity inadvertently established by the press corps, Kerry was free to pursue a third way of talking about religion. Whether or not his campaign is successful, his efforts may have changed political discourse for the better.

Kerry and his campaign have used religion to critique Bush’s record and policies in a manner that is unprecedented in recent American politics. A candidate who runs on religion, they suggest, must be prepared to be judged by religious standards. "What good is it, my brothers," Kerry asks audiences, quoting James 2:14, "if a man claims to have faith, but has no deeds?" It’s a short leap from that jab to an evaluation of how Bush’s rhetoric matches up against his accomplishments on issues from the environment to faith-based initiatives to anti-poverty efforts. In a September address to the National Baptist Convention, Kerry used the parable of the Good Samaritan to highlight Bush’s abandonment of social policy programs, casting Bush as the Levite who avoided helping the man who lay by the side of the road. For four years, charged Kerry, Bush has "seen people in need, but he’s crossed over to the other side of the street."

No one could have anticipated that Kerry would end up playing the role of prophet to Bush’s Pharisee, but the senator has spent much of the year calling out the president for his explicit appropriation of religion. One of the biggest crowd-pleasing lines in Kerry’s acceptance speech was the retelling of a story about Abraham Lincoln in which some ministers asked him to pray with them that God was on their side. "As Abraham Lincoln told us," Kerry said, "I want to pray humbly that we are on God’s side." The "pray humbly" part was an addition by Kerry that underscored the frustration many voters feel with Bush’s solid confidence that he is doing God’s will. It’s a sentiment that can be found even around the president’s own office. "I think you have to wonder when people are so sure they know what God wants them to do," a White House aide recently told me. "I just want to ask them, ‘Really? God told you that? That’s amazing.’ Because God seems like a pretty busy guy to me."

Politicians should be careful about claiming divine endorsement in electoral contests, and American voters should follow this closely. Because in this country we shouldn’t elect presidents (or any other official, for that matter) based on how many Christian rock stars they can line up on a stage, or whether televangelists call the election for them based on "talks" with God, or if they claim their unofficial running mate is Jesus Christ. Any politician who appeals to voters in that way is more than likely trying to deflect attention from their actual record, from what they have done. But talking the God-talk is no replacement for walking the walk.

Amy Sullivan is an editor of The Washington Monthly and a doctoral candidate in sociology at Princeton University.

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